Progress vs. Nostalgia

We live in the present. This is one of our great strengths, as it allows us to impact the future. I'm pointing out the obvious here to highlight a parallel, because being of the present is also one of our great flaws, as it can hinder our ability to visualize the future that we are creating by limiting our ability to think in anything beyond the short-term.

When I had the "Chicago moment" described in the previous post, it got me thinking about the L. We experience our environment through the five senses, and the rumble of the L trains is a distinctive part of how we hear Chicago. It is understood that the L was not always a part of the Chicago experience, a truth deemed unimportant because that was the Chicago of the past. The Chicago of the future, naturally, will always involve the L. It is part of the city's soul, part of what makes Chicago, Chicago. In other words, it's an important piece of the cultural legend that society has created for the city.

But I got to thinking recently with the recent press about the city's deteriorating infrastructure (even the New York Times got involved) and considered the possibility that the L and its mightily consoling rumble could one day cease to exist. While it is wonderful to hear the trains rumble by in the distance from three blocks away, I long ago realized that living up against the tracks might not be so enjoyable. And while the lowering of the entire system below grade seems like an incredible undertaking, it is not so hard for me to imagine, especially with the accelerating rate at which technology progresses, that one day in the not-too-distant future Chicago might see (or hear...or, rather, not hear) whisper-quiet trains. (Such trains already exist elsewhere, after all.) This idea brings into focus the central struggle that we see in placemaking is that between "progress" and "nostalgia." To wit: if the CTA were to come to a financial position that would allow it to replace the current L trains with much quieter, or even noiseless, trains, there would likely be some argument over whether or not it should do so due to the value that the rumble of the L adds to the unique Chicago experience.

But where would the validity be there? It is certainly true that, while improved technology can help to increase quality of life, it also poses the danger, at least in this case, of eliminating a distinct part of the cultural experience associated with a specific place. At the same time, not making the upgrade could be viewed as a feeble attempt to cling to the past. After all, if citizens of Chicago at the time that the L was built had argued against the noisy trains and won, the city would never developed this aspect of its identity in the first place.

I like to think that I'm a progressive person, and I consider creativity and innovation to be the juice that runs the human system...but I just can't imagine Chicago without the L.


Matt Novak said...

My girlfriend is from Chicago and I tease her about how loud the L is. I brag about the light rail in Minneapolis (where I'm originally from) being so quiet and she always retorts with, "how long has light rail been around?" In Minneapolis, the answer is "only a few years."

I certainly understand every aspect of your point. History is vital and should be preserved, but at what cost?

I started a blog a couple months ago that you may find interesting. It's about how people in the past envisioned the future.


Anonymous said...

Light rail is nice and all, but it is no match for a heavy capacity system like the L that Chicago needs.